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St. John of the Cross
Doctor of Mystical Theology

When a young woman came very fearfully to his confessional at Avila, he encouraged her: "I am not so, but the holier the confessor, the gentler he is, and the less he is scandalized at other people's faults, because he understands man's weak condition better." Sometimes as superior in the monastery he coughed or rattled the rosary hanging from his belt, to warn an offending friar of his approach. This was St. John of the Cross, often and even commonly thought of as the utmost in severity.

St. John was essentially a very gentle person, yet very intense. If he drove a generous and well-disposed penitent and spiritual child hard, it was only to lead him to greater union with God. He was not anxious to catch anybody breaking silence or infringing on some other monastic rule. He was willing to look the other way; yet he never closed his eyes to what really needed correcting. His strong sense of justice and the desire to see others advance led him to impose punishments that were on occasion severe.

When his vice-rector at the College of Baeza, without consulting him, accepted an invitation to preach, he sent another priest instead to give the sermon. He could never compromise, but his sense of balance between justice and love was delicate. He hoped to lessen the punishments he imposed, when the charity of a third party would come forth to intercede. At times he even complained when none of the brethren would ask for mercy for one of their fellow religious. St. John of the Cross dipped deeply into the wells of contemplation, and his union with God reflected some of the justice and mercy of God, which to most mortals often seem apparently contradictory - unless a person can look far below the surface of things.

St. John of the Cross was a many-sided man - in both his character and in his teaching. He was a great lover of nature, perhaps more so than any noted Saint, except perhaps St. Francis of Assisi. Still, he taught that all natural goods and all natural beauty must be forsaken if we wish to find God. He was affectionate and attached to friends, yet he said we should love and be forgetful of all in an equal way. Even by his biographers St. John has been interpreted from opposite viewpoints: "It is a striking reflection," says E. Allison Peers, (Anglican) scholar of the University of Liverpool and translator of and commentator on St. John of the Cross, "that critics and panegyrists have in turn associated St. John of the Cross, more or less exclusively, with every one of the principal elements of his teaching." (Tablet, July 4, 1942).

From a Poor Family

St. John of the Cross was the third and last child of a nobleman father who had been disinherited when he married a common working girl. The father, Gonzalo de Ypes, died when St. John was an infant; and the mother, Catalina, had a hard time trying to support her three sons, Francisco, Luis and Juan, by her work at the loom. The boys had all been born at Fontiveros, then a town of 5,000 people, about 24 miles northwest of Avila. Luis died in childhood, and when Francisco was about 20 and Juan six, the widow and two boys moved to Arevalo. Three years later, poverty again forced a move, this time to Medina del Campo.

It was in this business center of 30,000 that "Juan de Ypes" went to school. He was placed as a boarder in the Catechism School, a kind of orphanage, whose program afforded him a chance to learn something about tailoring, woodcarving, carpentry and painting. A sketch he painted of a crucifix is still preserved at the Convent of the Incarnation of Avila. St. John was not really skillful in any of these trades, but throughout life he liked to work with his hands. From the orphanage he went to live at the hospital of Nostra Senora de la Concepcion, where he worked as a male nurse and also where he collected alms for the upkeep of the institution. While living and working here, he was also permitted to attend the Jesuit College in the city. After a very busy four years, he graudated in 1563.

It was poverty that forced these boarding arrangements. St. John was very close to his mother and brother. Later, when Francisco, also noted for his holiness, was helping as a laborer, building the monastery of Los Martires at Granada, St. John always introduced him as "my brother, who is the treasure I value most in the world." Not long before his death, St. John sent for Francisco to come and spend some time with him. When Francisco wanted to leave, St. John made him stay a few days longer, knowing this would be their last time together on earth. "Don't be off in such a hurry, for you do not know when we shall see each other again." Their mother had died during an influenza epidemic at Medina del Campo in 1580. At the time, St. John of the Cross had been far away in Andalusia.

He Joins the Carmelites

In his boyhood St. John had twice been saved from drowning, once when he fell into a pond at Fontiveros and later when he was pushed into a well at Medina del Campo. He himself has told us that the Blessed Virgin saved him both times. It is not surprising, therefore, that he was atracted to the Order of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. He entered this order at St. Anne's in Medina del Campo in 1563 at the age of 21 and received the name, John of St. Mathias.

After his novitiate, he spent four years studying at the Carmelite College of St. Andrew and at the University of Salamanca. His training in literature, philosophy and theology was very thorough, and he was a diligent and brilliant student. He was ordained in the spring of 1567 during his theological studies; the exact date is not known. At the time he offered his first Mass at Medina, in September, the great favor of being confirmed in grace was granted to him. His first assignment was as tutor to the young Carmelites of St. Anne Monastery in Medina del Campo.

He was still a newly ordained priest of 25 when he met St. Teresa of Avila, who was visiting Medina. At the age of 52, she was then just over twice his age. St. John was thinking of joining the Carthusians so he could lead a more retired and prayerful life. But the reforming Madre Teresa saw in St. John of the Cross the man she had been looking for. She told him he could find what he wanted in religious life by helping her launch a reform of the Carmelite friars.

After their first meeting, St. Teresa hurried to tell her Sisters: "Help me, daughters, to give thanks to our Lord God, for we already have a friar and a half to begin the reform of the Friars." (This could have been a way of emphasizing St. John's worth, if it refers to him alone. As usually interpreted, it refers to his small stature; he would be the "half," while Antonio de Heredia, to whom St. Teresa had already spoken about the reform, would be the "whole" friar.) St. Teresa used to refer to St. John affectionately as "my little Seneca." She also wrote in a letter: "He is not tall, but I think he is of great stature in God's eyes."

The Reform of the Carmelite Friars

The Father General of the Carmelites had already given permission to found two reformed monasteries in Castile. On November 28, 1568, the first house of male Discalced ("shoeless") Carmelites opened at Duruelo. Antonio de Heredia, the former prior at Medina, came there to be the first superior, under the name Fray Antonio de Jesus. From this time onward, St. John signed his name, "John of the Cross." St. John, his brother Francisco and a lay brother had done the work of altering the little farmhouse given to St. Teresa at Duruelo. The chapel was so small that one could stand only in the center of the room, but toward the rear he would have to sit or kneel.

St. John of the Cross was the first to wear the rough habit of the Reformed Carmelite Friars. It was actually he who shaped their spirit, and he must be considered as the first of the Discalced Carmelite Friars and the Father of the Reform. The elderly Padre Antonio just happened to be the first local superior, and a little later, the first prior.

Duruelo was found to be just too far out of the way and was therefore abandoned in less than two years, the Friars going to Mancera, three miles distant. Another monastery was founded at Pastrana, and this became to a large extent the nursery of the Reform. When things were going badly at Pastrana, St. John of the Cross went there for awhile to organize matters and give a more steadying direction to the new novitiate.

St. John of the Cross, the Prisoner

It was at Toledo that St. John went through the greatest and most dramatic crisis of his life. He underwent a severe test of his courage, endurance and faith. He was caught in the vortex of a dispute between the Carmelites of the Mitigated Observance and the Carmelites of the Reform. There were good men on both sides of the disputed question, and the correct answer was not so clear in the heat of the argument. The key to the trouble was a conflict of authority between the Prior General of the Carmelite Order and the Papal Nuncio in Spain. In 1575 at Piacenza in Italy, the General Chapter of the Order suppressed those monasteries of the Reform which had been founded without authorization of the General. Nothing was done to put this decree into effect, however, as long as Ormaneto, the Papal Nuncio, who was friendly to the Reform, was in office. After his death, however, and with the coming of Sega, a nuncio hostile to the Reform, the Calced Carmelites (Carmelites of the Mitigated Observance), calling on the civil arm of the law, had a number of the Reformed Carmelite Fathers arrested.

St. John of the Cross was taken prisoner in December, 1577, from his chaplain's house at the Convent of the Incarnation in Avila and brought to Toledo. He judged rightly that the decrees of Piacenza, which were read to him, referred only to houses founded without the Prior General's permission. But he would not renounce the Reform, as he was called on to do. Therefore, he was termed rebellious and contumacious.

He was imprisoned in the monastery in Toledo in a room ten feet by six, with a very small slit high in the wall being his only source of light. The room was really nothing but a large closet. Here St. John was locked in for nine months, suffering from the cold in the winter and the stifling heat in the summer. When he was brought out, it was to take his meal of bread and water and sometimes sardines, kneeling in the refectory, and to hear the upbraidings of the Prior. After the meal on Fridays, he had to bare his shoulders and undergo the circular discipline for the space of a Miserere. Each person present struck him in turn with a lash. St. John bore the scars of these beatings throughout his life.

There were other cruelties, for the conversation outside the dark cell dwelt on the complete crushing of the Reform. All the letters of St. Teresa of Avila to the King of Spain, Philip II, and others were to no avail. No one even knew where John was kept. "I do not know how it comes about that there is never anyone who remembers this holy man," she complained in one letter.

In the darkness of this cell, St. John of the Cross composed and committed to memory some of his greatest poems, including most of his book, The Spiritual Canticle, which is 40 stanzas in length. On August 14, when the Prior, the stern Fray Maldonaldo, came to St. John's cell and asked what he was thinking about that he did not rise, St. John replied, "That tomorrow is Our Lady's feast and how much I should love to say Mass." "Not while I am here," the Prior replied.

Later, after his incarceration was over, St. John of the Cross never said a word against those who had treated him so badly. "They did it because they did not understand," he said in excuse. He bore no ill-feeling toward his "jailers," for his soul in its most inward part was unruffled and at peace and dwelt with God.

A change in jailers after six months brought a more lenient friar to be his keeper. But he was torn by doubt as to what was God's Will: Should he try to escape, or was it the will of God for him to die here? His searching prayer was answered by the conviction that he should escape. So he began to plan. While the others were at table, the more lenient young Father, Juan de Santa Maria, allowed St. John to help clean the cell. This included the liberty of walking down the corridor outside the room onto which his prison closet opened in order to empty the night pail. The jailer had also given St. John a needle and thread to mend his clothing. He tied a small stone to the thread and measured the distance to the ground from a window in the corridor. Back in his cell, he sewed his blankets together and found that they would, if used as a rope, reach to within 11 feet of the ground - close enough to permit a jump. Little by little he had also loosened the screws in the padlock outside the cell. On the night he planned to escape, two visiting friars happened to be sleeping in the room outside. They awoke when the padlock fell when St. John shook it, but they went back to sleep again, their sleepy eyes perhaps being closed by a wide-awake angel.

St. John stepped between the friars and silently let himself out through the window and down on his improvised rope. Had he landed two feet farther out from the building, he would have fallen to the rocky banks of the Tagus River below. He next found himself in a court surrounded by walls; he was almost ready to give up, but he finally succeeded in climbing one of the walls and was able to drop into an alleyway of the city. After daybreak, he found the convent of the Discalced Carmelite nuns, who sheltered him and later found a temporary refuge for him in the Hospital of Santa Cruz, very close to the monastery from which he had escaped. The friars from the monastery had come to the convent looking for him while he was there, and now little knew that the emaciated, nearly dead object of their search was being nursed back to life not a stone's throw away.

Taken from The 33 Doctors of the Church by TAN Books & Publishers, Inc.

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